The Tree in Mythology by Karl Johan Karlson 1914
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Among those objects which early attracted man's attention the tree seems to have occupied a very prominent place. This would be quite natural, for, if the Simian ancestors took to the trees after having emerged from the primeval ocean, these played a great role in the sustenance and further development of the species. Seemingly from the support which the trees gave man in his early existence, even if he never lived in trees, as seems to be the present tendency to believe, he developed elaborate theories about life-trees and world-trees of which the Scandinavian world-ash Yggdrasil is the most prominent and minutely worked out. This world-ash has three roots, all in the underworld. Near the fountain of Mimer lay the germ of Yggdrasil. From here it grew up and sent out its roots, one towards the North, to the fountain of Hwergelmir in Nifelhel, the second towards the South, to the fountain of Urd, and the third to the fountain of Mimer in the middle of Ginnungagap. From these fountains the tree received nourishment and strength, and it grew to an enormous height and spread its branches far and wide. Upon the network woven of the fine threads from the three roots, lay the foundation of the underworld; in the first cluster of branches was Midgard, the home of man, located, and in the second Asgard, the home of the gods. The top of Yggdrasil overshadowed Odin's hall, while the branches towered far and wide over all the worlds. The tree was ever green, its leaves never withered, and it supplied gods and men with many useful and indispensable things.
But all good things have their enemies, and so Yggdrasil. Close by the wondrous tree, near the fountain of Hwergelmir, there lived a dragon, Nidhug, which ceaselessly gnawed the roots, assisted by countless worms. They knew that when the tree died, the downfall of the gods was at hand. But the Norns or Fates who are the servants of the gods, sprinkle daily the tree with holy water from the Urdar fountain and thus maintain its healthy condition.
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The tree is a creation of the gods who endowed it with many characteristics. It contains the elements of all past, present and future generations; the primordial elements of each individual man budding and maturing upon its branches are carried away by the storks which are Lodi's birds to those who yearn for a new being.
The Babylonians developed a somewhat similar idea of a world-tree which, according to Sayce, was at first the cedar but subsequently the palm. This tree rested on the earth with its roots far down into the abysmal deep, where Ea, the god of wisdom, presided, and nourished the earth with the springs and streams which forced their way upwards from the roots to the surface of the ground. Zikum, the primordial heaven, rested, as it were, upon the overshadowing branches of the mighty stem. Within it was the holy house of Davkina, the great mother, and of Tammuz, her son, "a temple too sacred and far hidden in the recesses of the earth for mortal man to enter."
Thus, the poets of the Eddas and the Eridu portray the same mythological fancies and draw pictures which in many cases resemble one another. But the sacred tree of the Babylonians was more than a world-tree. It was also employed, says Sayce
"in incantations and magic rites which were intended to restore strength and life to the human frame. It was thus essentially a tree of life and the prototype and original of those conventional trees of life with which the walls of the Assyrian palaces were adorned."
In the religion of Zarathustra the tree of life is called Horn and grows, according to Zend-Avesta, by a spring upon a mountain. It is king of all trees. Ferverdin, who is the doorkeeper of paradise, like Riswan in the Moslem saga, and his followers guard it against the attack of Ahriman who wants to possess it. This tree assures resurrection to those who die in faith and has the power to reveal thieves and murderers before they do any harm.
Kalevala, the Finnish national poem, tells of a mighty oak which sprang from an acorn planted by Wainamoinen and which
"raised itself above the storm-clouds dimming the sunlight, hiding the moonbeams and causing the stars to die in the sky until a hero alarmed at its growth appealed to the mother, the wind-spirit, who sent forth a dwarf grown into a giant whose strength overcomes the oak. It falls and its power to bestow good is only then discovered."
Unlike Yggdrasil this world-tree is overcome by its enemies, but this is for the good of mankind. Like the Babylonian cedar or palm it is used in incantations and magic rites to bestow power and happiness.
That man originated from trees was the belief not only of the ancient Scandinavians where Ask and Embla were turned into human beings by the gods and where the elements of each individual buds upon the branches of Yggdrasil, but also of many other people. Hesiod tells us that Zeus made a brazen race of ash trees and Virgil writes:
"These woods were first the seat of sylvan powers
Of nymphs and fauns and savage man who took
Their birth from trunks of trees and stubborn oaks."
Ormuzd gave soul to a plant which had first grown up single but afterwards divided into two, Moschia and Moschiana, who became the parents of the race. And the Mexicans believed that their ancestors had come from the seeds of the sacred Mariche palm.
Closely related to the world-tree is the belief in the possibility of climbing to heaven in a tree. If the heaven, the land of the gods, were located in the upper branches of that tree upon whose lower ones the earth had its place, why was it not possible to climb to that place of happiness and bliss in a tree? Many races far separated in time, space and culture said it was, and their answer has reached the nursery tales of our own times.
That trees were alive, have spirit, sensations, and feelings, was the belief of almost all ancient peoples. Frazer has shown that many tribes even to this day believe that to cut down a tree is to dispossess a soul and commit matricide. The Fiji Islanders will never eat a cocoanut without asking: "May I eat thee, my chief?" And the young among the Thompson Indians of British Columbia prayed to the sunflower root before eating it.
Prayers of all kinds were offered to the trees. Their worship ranges from the mere adoration till an intimate life-connection with them like that of the Dryads of Greek and Roman mythology and the Druids of Celtic who would suffer even unto death, if their trees were cut down. Almost every nation seems to have developed a special cult around a special tree aside from regarding all trees more or less sacred. This singling out of a particular tree is, however, of a much later date than the general belief in the spirituality of all trees which is more generic.
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